Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 24 seconds

confusingWhen talking about small business accounting software, the key word (or more precisely, phrase) has to be “ease of use.”  That’s what each of the vendors in this space is trying to accomplish.  What’s interesting is the diversity of approaches they take in achieving this goal.  Apparently one man’s “ease of use” is another man’s bloated screen; one woman’s need to pull out the right information is offset by another women’s desire to have everything at her manicured fingertips; and one accountant’s need for complete system access is another auditor’s independence nightmare. In short, there are competing needs for different users but thankfully, these vendors deliver something for everyone.

When you talk to small businesses, the last thing they want to do is spend their time on accounting. Rather they want to be free to spend their time applying their unique skill – which could be anything from basket weaving, to repairing bent lawn mower blades, to teaching southerners the correct use of the word “fixin’”.  Regardless of their specialty, these owners would mostly rather have their big toe amputated than spend their day recording transactions in an accounting system.

But then there are the needs of accounting firms who work with these same small businesses. As accountants, we want to be able to work with our clients’ information without impeding their ability to function.  We need to be able to view and modify their financial statements and occasionally review transaction details. And we want easy access to their information. But we would frankly be very happy if there were a few things our clients couldn’t do in their accounting software : enter a one-sided journal entry, delete a prior year transaction, or have 5 different accounts to store their “marketing/ markting /MARKETING /MKTG /marketin” expenses.

So the vendors in this space have a dilemma – they need to provide all of the features and functions that a business might need while masking the complexity.  They need to satisfy not only the control requirements of the accounting profession and secure the business assets from unauthorized users, but also have to make life easier for a business owner.

Here’s how the vendors have dealt with this dilemma in their newest releases.

1. Reports are dead. Long live dashboards.

Many of the vendors reviewed now push critical information to business owners (so they no longer have to pull the information out of their software).

2. Microsoft Excel or bust.

Vendors are continuing to make it easy to get information out of the software and into Excel so both owners and accountants can play with the numbers (and fonts, colors, charts, and lots of other cool stuff.)

3. It’s all about me.  But am I better than you?

Many vendors have focused on providing strong reporting capabilities and some are now offering benchmarking tools.

4. A picture is worth a thousand numbers.

Vendors are striving to present information in a visual way whenever possible.

5. I thought “password” was a strong password.

Vendors are refining security, controls, and password features and are helping companies automate their approval processes.
Let’s take a look at each of these products, in alphabetical order, to see how the vendors have done in delivering ease of use for users and their accountants:

• Intacct

MYOB

• Peachtree by Sage

• QuickBooks

Intacct

This company came on strong in early 2000. They targeted accountants as their distribution channel  when  “Software as a Service” (SaaS) or the hosted model , as we called it back then, was still a leading edge technology. Most accountants are as likely to adopt leading edge technology as they are to appear on the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.” At the time, accountants just didn’t promote or adopt this solution in large numbers. The company and product endured and those accountants who did embrace the technology have been reaping the benefits of anytime, anywhere deployments and dual access by client and accountant for awhile now. The company and the product have both continued to evolve and now hold a technology leadership position in the small business space.  They are the only Software as a Service offering targeting small businesses.

With their recent CPA2Biz (an affiliate of the AICPA) partnership and resultant price reductions for services sold through CPA firms, more accountants will learn about (and I suspect take advantage of) this option for providing the kind of proactive service many small business owners want. As expected, the product makes full use of web technology and allows a user to flow from screen to screen via hyperlinks.  But it has a full feature set that meets the needs of small and growing businesses.

For a small business owner, the solution offers all of the benefits of SaaS delivery:  reduced IT investment and administration, simplified implementations, automatic upgrades and feature enhancements, and a monthly payment option.  A streamlined interface and intuitive workflow add to the power of the solution while the highly visual, customizable dashboard pulls it all together.  The product has a tight system of controls and only displays features  that are allowed based on a user’s  access rights.

Among their unique benefits is an expense tracking solution. Remote users can access and enter their expenses via the Internet for automated approval routing via a customizable workflow process.  Additional features are added to this “best of breed” solution via integration with other applications including ADP and Paychex, Salesforce.com, and Bill.com to name a few.

From an accountant’s perspective, the tool allows secure access to multiple clients from a single screen, repeatable processes via customizable templates, and the ability to brand the software in their own name. It also provides a firm the opportunity to deliver a value-added service offering that can change the way write up services are perceived by a client.

Ease of use as defined by Intacct means anytime, anywhere access to critical business information by both a business owner and their accountant.

MYOB

There is only one accounting package that has both a name fit for IM (Instant Messaging) and is hip enough to be sold by a “genius” at an Apple Store. That product would be “Mind Your Own Business” or MYOB.  This is one of the few accounting solutions that is designed for the MAC (but also works exactly the same way on a PC.)

Since the current management team acquired the US rights to MYOB, their focus has been on keeping their solution as streamlined as possible. They claim that other products have continued to cram more and more information into their applications, including ads, surveys, and sales tools that distract the user from performing the job at hand. They are all about letting a user get in and out of the product as quickly as possible. (Probably so they can get back to downloading more songs for their Iphones.)

MYOB Premier Accounting can be setup in 10 minutes and includes advanced features like inventory kits, negative inventory quantities and a sophisticated time and billing solution. To keep the accountants happy, MYOB also offers a Company Data Auditor that walks a consultant through the process of identifying and correcting user mistakes.

Each of the modules provides access to common tasks via a Command Center and movement from one task to another is intuitive. Lists and fields can be customized by the user across six different product areas. With more than 250 reports, including a group called “exceptions”, this solution has much to offer a small business for a price of $299.

Surprisingly, the product doesn’t offer a dashboard. The only visual tools I saw were some rudimentary pie charts and basic graphs available for analyzing assets, liabilities, and equity as well as sales. It sounds to me like they need to tap into their Mac user base to find some creative, visual types who can help them create a really slick dashboard.

The product does include import and export links to CaseWare’s working paper product to help keep the accountants happy and productive.

With approximately 50,000 users the company has a significant following but they remain one of the few companies in this space that is small enough to have a personal relationship with their customers. Their team is approachable and knowledgeable and extremely focused on their mission of providing uncluttered access to the information an owner needs.  I was amazed to find myself interviewing  Managing Partner Tom Nash for this article.

For MYOB, ease of use means an uncluttered interface that only presents the features a small business owner needs (and the ability to buy software in an Apple store, which let’s face it, is fun.)

Peachtree

Peachtree Premium has been providing its customers with a financial dashboard, called the Business Status Center, since June of 2006. Designed to give a business owner insight into key financial ratios, the customizable dashboard offers information at a glance. In the 2010 release, they have expanded this concept of providing information at your finger tips in two ways.

First, they provide information to help the lowly AR clerk stay on top of customer information. No longer does the accounts receivable clerk require the stamina of Lance Armstrong to uncover the details of a customer’s history ; it’s all there in the customer management center. Busy AR staffers can create a customized dashboard showing all things customer : including converted and unconverted quotes, invoices, receipts, time tickets, aged balances, items and services sold. They can look up customers by ID, phone number or any of their contact information, and filter based on date ranges. And once they find the customer they seek, they can quickly export information in a number of formats or quickly e-mail them to speed collections.

Also new in the 2010 release is an integrated Business Analytics solution.  Peachtree users  on all editions can now take advantage of a free benchmarking service ($500 value at retail) that lets companies analyze their historical trends and compare them to others in similar industries. Drawing on a database used by the banking industry, information is presented in a visual way that anyone can understand.  (Presumably, even those bankers.)

Accountants have long been fans of Peachtree’s inherent accounting controls and the Internal Accounting Review that helps them identify 15 common errors made by small business users of the software.  Accountants will also be fans of Peachtree’s screen-level and report group access
controls. Administrators can select from more than 100 specific areas to give Add, Edit, View-Only, or No Access rights to each user.

You’ll find many Peachtree owners running more than one company on the software but up until the 2010 release, they had to close one company before opening another.  Now Peachtree allows an unlimited number of open companies, accessible via a single product license.  This will be a huge benefit for business owners and accountants alike. Sage says that accountants using their Peachtree Accountants Edition have an average of 23 companies on the product.  With the time saved when working on multiple companies, an Atlanta accountants  might finally have time to officially certify the number of Waffle Houses found on every city block.

To Peachtree, ease of use means quick access to good business information so a business owner can make the right decisions.

QuickBooks

When it comes to ease of use, QuickBooks has historically focused on the business owner’s needs. They have made it quick and easy for an owner to enter transactions, pay the bills and keep track of his cash balance. Their screens look like common forms and business owners know how to move around in the product. This focus on simplicity for small business owners has helped them capture the lion’s share of the US small business market.

In the past, Intuit has taken hits from unhappy accountants who have had to make numerous adjustments to fix the mess made by their QuickBooks clients. With their latest release, Intuit has helped to close the gap between the needs of their customers and the needs of the accountants who serve them.   Intuit admits that 60% of an accountant’s total engagement is spent cleaning up transactions. With the release of QuickBooks Premier Accountant 2009 and the included Client Data Review, Intuit says they are helping accountants identify and correct potential client errors which accounts for a 30% improvement in their productivity.  (That’s like hiring 1/3 of a new person, which hopefully includes the parts that can work a 10-key.)

They have also made it easier for accountants to produce professional financial statements directly in Excel. Available as a $149 add-on to the Accountant’s Edition, the Intuit Statement Writer allows for Excel formatting and account rollups to be stored with the financial statements.  I expect this one feature to give many accountants, including the 50,000 members of their Pro Advisor community, cause for celebration.

On the user side, they have gotten on the dashboard bandwagon by adding a Company Snapshot button. The information provided is fairly report-centric (versus visual) but it conveniently offers multiple pieces of company information in one central place.

For users who are reaching outside of the U.S., QuickBooks 2009 now offers multi-currency capabilities. This is good news for business owners embracing Internet sales and cross-border expansion. This is also good news for accountants since small business owners will now be able to add accounting for foreign currency gains or losses to the list of things they don’t really understand (and will need accountants’ help addressing.)

For QuickBooks, ease of use has always meant quick and easy transaction entry with a minimal time investment for the business owner. With this latest release, they have made it dramatically easier and more productive for that owner’s accountant.

Summary

No matter how you define it, ease of use is important to every small business owner. With the latest releases from each of these vendors, making life easier for an owner does not have to mean that life gets more difficult for their accountant.  Every business in every industry is focused on increasing productivity, improving cash flow, and reaching more customers. With tools like these at their disposal, they can spend a lot less time focused on their accounting.

Geni Whitehouse CPA.CITP, CSPM
Geni Whitehouse, CPA.CITP, CSPM is the Founder of Even a Nerd Can Be Heard, an organization focused on communication skills for smart people.  With past roles ranging from partner in a CPA firm to leader of the technology practice in a firm, she has a wide range of experiences to share.  She is a former software company executive and industry analyst and a two-time graduate of the Jeff Justice Comedy Workshoppe. She is passionate about finding interesting ways to talk about what some might consider boring subjects and has discovered that there is no shortage of material. She is the author of How to Make a Boring Subject Interesting : 52 ways even a nerd can be heard.
Last modified on Sunday, 02 June 2013
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